Day One: Take part in the Canadian Ski Marathon

Crazy or brave? You decide.
Here's the first of my one-a-day series of daft things to do in Canadian snow...
Join thousands of bonkers Canadians on some of the best cross-country ski trails in the world. The good news - you can do as few or as many of the ten sections as you like. Even doing one 14km leg like me, will net you high praise from the Canucks. Every year for the last 44 years Canadians set aside a weekend in February to ski  on the Ontario-Quebec border in the Canadian Ski Marathon. The two-day 160km event between Lachute and Gatineau, attracts all kinds. These are Canadians at home in their natural winter habitat. Families, skiers in fancy dress and the super fit take part and range in age from 5 to 85. 

Just doing one section nets Canadian friends for life.
As well as the fun skiers there is the hardcore element or coureurs des bois as they are known. They are aiming for bronze, silver or gold medals by not only skiing the full course along the Ottawa valley, but deliberately making it hard on themselves.  Some carry heavily weighted packs and.. wait for it.. sleep outdoors in the snow. (These folks are aiming for a gold.) I told you they were bonkers. If none of this appeals to you, let me say two words. Luxury hotel. Yes organisers have rather cleverly built the marathon course around the Fairmont Chateau Montebello - one of Canada's finest hotels. This is the sort of winter sport I can enjoy.
A skier practises at Chateau Montebello.
The Montebello is a stunning former gentlemen's lodge built from red cedar logs  with a showpiece six-sided fireplace rising to 66ft. It offers special packages to those in the ski marathon and even if you're not staying the night, skiers tend to congregate here in the evening to warm themselves by the fire and share stories from the day. While having dinner there I overheard a chap in his 60s being asked how he enjoyed his skiing. "Great," he replied. " I did all five sections - it took 12 hours". I almost choked on my meal.
And they're off. Start of section one.
Shuttle buses take you to the start of your chosen section and despite feeling a fraud for only attempting one leg  (I'm a relative beginner at cross-country skiing ) Canadians were extremely encouraging and delighted that I was taking part in their national event. Typically democratic, there are no winners or losers and any age or ability can join in. For those partners who don't want to participate there is a fine pool, hot-tubs, an ice rink and dog-sledding to occupy you back at the hotel.
Fancy dress is strictly thermal. It's -12C
Some skiers like to rough it in one of the many marathon dormitories nearby. But this hotel has become as much a part of the marathon as the skiing for many and you can see why with it's country cabin style rooms, log walls, tartan upholstery and great wood smell.  The lobby is quintessentially Canadian with wood beams, fireplace and wraparound balconies on each floor. The breakfast buffet is a sight to behold and starts at 3.30am for the real keeners.  (They set off with head lamps)
The grounds of the Fairmont Chateau Montebello
There is a real sense of camaraderie as you wait for the starting gun to be fired by a man in a raccoon hat. Which wax are you using? I asked a complete stranger. It's 
-12C. "I'm using blue extra but that doesn't make it right," he joked. I notice the skiers in fancy dress have very little exposed flesh. The gun goes off and as I powered along with hundreds of skiers I was overtaken by several small children. These Canadians learn their winter sports young. When we hit our first hill hundreds of us waddle up like penguins and my worries that someone would take a tumble and knock us all over, are unfounded.
The end of section one. Enough for me.
The course is beautiful, a combination of woodland trails and open countryside - a real winter wonderland. This is North America's longest and oldest Nordic ski tour. Although this first section is graded easy I still struggle with a few of the hills. I take a tumble on some and take my skis off for others. No shame in that, the Canadians tell me. When I finally crossed the finish line three hours later (I told you I was a beginner) it was with a sense of achievement.
Me with real Canadians at the Ski Marathon, Montebello.
A volunteer who welcomed me at the end of the first section asked me if I was doing another. " That was my first time in the marathon. That's quite enough, thank you." This inspires applause and cries of "good job" from the ever-enthusiastic Canucks. The truth is with a bit more training and some company I'd love to try and do more sections. It's a real Canadian experience.
For more pictures go to Dear England, Love Canada Facebook page

Ski tracks at sunset.
So what does it costRegistration for regular skier in CSM $150-$265 (depending on how early you register.)
Accommodation per adult : 2 nights in dormitory $100; 2 nights at Chateau Montebello $513 (double room).
So who do I speak to?
When is it? This winter it's February 12 and 13 2011.
Come back for Day Two of Five Crazy Things to do in a Canadian Winter by someone who has done them. 
For some not-very-serious advice on what to wear in this chilly Canadian climate go here
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  1. As a beginner (tres debutante!) cross-country skier, it is very impressive that you completed the 14km leg! Was it hilly too?

  2. This is interesting. Canadians all say oh yes it's a flat section. Guess the definition of flat is different in England and Canada. But I'm glad I did it and really it's fun thing to see - hundreds of skiers all stretched out behind you (or in front of me in my case)

  3. You good sport!!! Have you plunked yourself down in the snow and made a snow angel yet? What about dogsledding. Have you been dogsledding. We dogsled miles into Algonquin Park to a cabin (yep with no water or electricity but with propane lamps, I never miss the electricity although outdoor plumbing is a challenge. I like snowshoes- you can bushwhack with them more than skis. There's a good toboggan run at Mt Royal Park. That's a NYE tradition for us if there's snow. Skating on a frozen pond another fun Bumper-hitching a blast on the ice- dangerous tho'.

  4. Snow angel, check, snowshoes, check, skating on pond, check . Booked up for dog-sledding this winter and ice fishing.
    Toboggans on Mount Royal - I've watched them while drinking hot chocolate- does that count?
    Tell me more about bumper-hitching. Sounds death-defying to me. You Canadians are hardy folks!


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